Problematic Questions

On the 5th Sunday of Lent, we begin a period known as Passiontide. Passiontide prepares us to move into Holy Week, which for us will begin next Saturday afternoon with an outdoor celebration of the Liturgy of the Palms followed by a livestream celebration on Palm Sunday.

This year we enter this more solemn season troubled by increasing societal division – marked in particular this last week by another shooting atrocity. If any shooting atrocity is not bad enough, this week we have been reminded again of the violence of an emboldened white, male supremacy, which in addition to its traditional targets of blacks and Jews – fanned by the former President’s reckless and mendacious racial tagging of the Coronavirus has over this last year become increasingly focused against the Asian American community.  

The recent shootings across Atlanta should also focus our attention on the sex industry and the vulnerability of the many women of color and in particular of Asian ethnicity who predominate in this industry. Race and anti racism is once more on the national agenda. White supremacist violence and the creed of white supremacy is now something that approaches a national law and order crisis in the face of homegrown terrorism threats. We see a nationwide legislative advocacy of voter suppression bills that have been recently described as Jim Crow in suits. We have witnessed a sharp increase in anti semitic rhetoric and threats against Jews and Jewish property. This is the national atmosphere as we approach Easter 2021.

Holy Week and Easter each year raise an uncomfortable question for Christians – to what extent does the scriptural language we read and hear as part and parcel of our celebration of Holy Week and Easter unintentionally affirm the deep vein of Western antisemitism?

To what extent does the scriptural language we read and hear as part and parcel of our celebration of Holy Week and Easter unintentionally affirm the deep vein of Western Anti-semitism?

It’s important to distinguish this question from another question often asked: are the Evangelists – the writers of the gospels, anti semitic? These are two different questions and have two different answers. Within the context of the 1st-century, the gospel drumbeat of the Jews, the Jews as the catchall phrase identifying the opposition to Jesus can be best understood as expressing a quarrel between two emerging Jewish movements following the destruction of the Temple in 70AD.

The gospel writers were Jews themselves, writing for mixed Jewish and increasingly Jewish-Gentile communities – who as followers of Jesus had been expelled from an equally young and still emerging Rabbinical Judaism. The gospels express a resentment that is a typical Jewish resentment against an opposing Jewish faction. Church and synagogue now face each other on opposite sides of the street – each with competing versions of Israel’s story.

The roots of antisemitism do not lie here but in the later emergence among Christians of the belief that in Christ God had rejected the covenant with Old Israel in favor of the new covenant with the Church as a New Israel. Despite Paul’s vehement rejection of this idea, this belief nonetheless took root and down the centuries grew into the doctrine of supercessionalism o replacement theology. I believe the roots of Western antisemitism can be found in this later development of supercessionalism or replacement theology and not in the attitudes of the gospel authors. Once launched, antisemitism has found any number of historical narratives of envy and resentment quite unrelated to erroneous Christian theology.

In the 20th-century, mainstream Protestant Churches together with the Roman Catholic Church emphatically rejected supercessionalism. Current Church teaching affirms St. Paul’s teaching. As the earliest Christian writer Paul taught that Christians were not subject to the Jewish law but that God nevertheless remained faithful to the covenant he had made with Israel.

Today’s reading from the Prophet Jeremiah on the fifth Sunday in Lent throws and interesting light on the question to what extent does the scriptural language we read and hear as part and parcel of our celebration of Holy Week and Easter affirm the deep vein of Western antisemitism?

In the 31st chapter of the prophet Jeremiah he proclaims:

The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
 It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt.
   “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.

These beautiful words are uttered against a background of national disaster. Jeremiah is speaking in the immediate crisis of 586-7 following the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin to captivity in Babylon. In response to this catastrophe, he offers words of comfort – prophesying an eventual restoration after a period of suffering. So far so good. However, the startling significance in Jeremiah’s prophecy lies not in the promise of return and restoration but in the way he is signaling the emergence of a profound shift in the psychology that would eventually underpin Jewish religious life.

The promise of a new covenant marks a turning point in the spiritual development from religion as a set of external laws to be communally obeyed and collectively observed to religion as a matter of the individual heart – focused on internal intention and loving acceptance within each individual. This development signals an emergence within Jewish understanding of a relationship with God as a mutual knowing that directly paves the way for the eventual arrival of a messiah whose primary focus of teaching will emphasize a personal response of the heart to God -experienced not as a demand to obey but as a call to love.

The first followers of Jesus heard Jeremiah’s words as a direct reference to the spiritual revolution that was reshaping their religious lives. Through our more accurate historical perspective, we know that Jeremiah was not speaking of the coming of Jesus as Messiah but of a shift in Jewish understanding about what relationship with God involved. Henceforth, Torah would cease to be simply a system of laws and duties and would become an internal guide to shaping religious observance as a matter of a heart-felt personal experience of God.

The first Christians, viewing Jeremiah through the Jesus lens understandably saw themselves as the people of the promised new covenant – and of course they were. But the new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks was a process that emerged from within Jewish religious consciousness prior to Jesus. Jeremiah’s words signaled a shift in Jewish religious consciousness as a prerequisite for Jesus- and without which the coming of a messiah like Jesus could not have happened.

Personally I would like us to replace the reference to the Jews in the passion narratives. When referring to a large body of Jews we should say the people. When referring to the religious authorities prosecuting Jesus why not simply name them as the authorities.

We enter Passiontide in 2021, particularly aware of the nature of so much suffering in the world around us, yet also mindful of the power of faith, hope, and love to lead us through darkness into light. As Christians we live beneath the shadow of the cross. In the shadow of the cross, we find ourselves wriggling, often feeling daunted and overwhelmed by the scale of the work God calls us to – a work of naming and rendering evil homeless through truth telling, justice making, and the spiritual restoration that disembodies evil – one truth, one heart, one act of compassion at a time. We are empowered in this task because in the shadow of the cross we also discover it a place of homeopathic transformation – where evil and death are transformed by love into new life.

May our celebration of Holy Week and Easter this year be illumined by the realization that without the psychological shift in Jewish religious consciousness that Jeremiah proclaims to the exiles in Babylon, God’s entry into human history in the life of Jesus; God’s acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah and his raising Jesus from the dead; these mighty acts in human history might have been further delayed.

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